Time to think again about food we eat

Like many people I’ve watched with shock as the latest food scandal has unfolded before our eyes.

It is fraud on a massive scale and in my view a direct result of big supermarkets putting more and more pressure on suppliers to reduce costs.

I fear that as I write, we’re nowhere near discovering the true scale of this crime.

There will be huge consequences throughout the food industry and many will fall victim through no fault of their own.

I was working in the fast food industry a decade ago when the BSE epidemic broke, it wiped 25 per cent off turnover overnight and it took the best part of five years to recover and many previously thriving businesses simply could not survive.

This was one small part of the chain and there are many farmers who are still struggling to get back on track to this day.

As shocking as the revelations have been, particularly the beef lasagne that contained 0 per cent beef, there’s a part of me that isn’t surprised at all.

You only have to look at the price that some processed meat products are available for to begin to question what’s in them.

For the first time in many years, I had a look at the ready meals section in supermarket. When the price of a frozen meal is a pound or less and you can buy half a dozen frozen burgers for 90p I know that there is either an awful lot of junk being used as filler or the cuts of meat are the cheapest of the cheap or mechanically reclaimed.

Similarly, when you drive buy an advert for a Sunday carvery for £2.50, alarm bells should be ringing.

There are many items that look like bargains in the supermarket but as my Granddad used to tell me: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

My hope is that there may be some real positives to come out of this scandal.

Perhaps more people will start to really think about where their food comes from. Perhaps they’ll take a closer look at the ingredients list and perhaps food labelling will become more honest.

Perhaps we’ll be able to see a British label and know for sure that the meat we are eating was born, raised and humanely slaughtered in this country.

I was pleased to see that Michael Gove intends to introduce compulsory cooking lessons in school. Wouldn’t it be great if every child left school with a decent repertoire of meals they can prepare for themselves?

How is it that a cow that’s reared hundreds of miles away, on a different continent, can be transported half way around the world and end up butchered and on the shelves of the supermarket for a seemingly cheaper price than the local butcher can charge for a cow that was reared within 20 minutes’ drive of the shop?

The answer is simple, all is not as it seems. There is a reason why so much of what is on offer in the supermarkets is so cheap. Animal growth is forced and stimulated to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get to slaughter, water is added, much of what is presented as fresh meat arrived at the supermarket frozen and what do you suppose happens to all the offal?

And how many times have you purchased a piece of meat from a supermarket, trimmed off the excess fat and removed the bone you weren’t expecting to find only to discover that you actually have half the weight of meat you thought you’d paid for?

We’re really lucky in Wetherby that we have some fantastic independent food shops where you can be absolutely confident that you’re buying exactly what is advertised.

Those people who shop locally from proper butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers and prepare their meals from scratch will have watched with amusement as the horse meat scandal has unfolded.

I didn’t grow up in an affluent household, I was one of the free school meals kids at school and I know how difficult it can be to feed a family on a tight budget.

What I do know, is that it’s cheaper to prepare nutritious meals from fresh ingredients than it is to live on ready meals. It may feel more convenient to pop a plastic tray full of plastic food into the microwave for a few minutes, but even if you’re pressed for time, you could knock up an omelette in less time than it takes to reheat your frozen horse lasagne.

While there is still much of this scandal to unfold there are some clear lessons to learn already.

No local butcher would dream of passing one thing off as another, they’d soon get found out and they know their business would never survive the reputational damage.

They survive because they charge realistic prices for quality products and provide great service.

I know from many conversations I’ve had over the past 18 months that there are many people in Wetherby who would like another supermarket and I really do understand where they’re coming from.

My personal view, which I must stress is not the view of the majority of our town councillors, is that a second supermarket would do irreversible damage to the independent shops in our town.

I know that I probably won’t make myself popular by arguing against another supermarket but to me, this current scandal highlights the importance of valuing and supporting those local shops that serve us so well.

They may not be the cheapest and the hours they open may not always be convenient but you can shop there with the confidence that what you see is what you get.

My message this week is simple; if you want to know what’s in the food you’re eating, buy local and cook it yourself.